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Political Science in Europe

Anti-Austerity between Militant Materialism and Real Democracy: Exploring Pragmatic Prefigurativism

Contentious Politics
Political Sociology
David Bailey
University of Birmingham
David Bailey
University of Birmingham

The anti-austerity movement that emerged in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis and 2010 Eurozone crisis, and which forms part of the 'age of austerity' that came after those crises, was and remains in many ways contradictory. Many of the goals of the movement are grounded in concrete material concerns related to inequality, precarity, poverty, welfare conditionality and retrenchment, and the failure, inability or unwillingness of the labour market or the welfare state to provide for the well-being of substantial sections of society within the advanced industrial democracies. This inability of the state or market to meet the requirements of the public is compounded by the strikingly similar failure, inability or unwillingness of most formal institutions of representation (especially political parties and trade unions) to react in a way that would prompt a reversal of austerity. In this sense, the anti-austerity movement was borne of a pragmatic desperation to achieve material well being through any feasible alternative available. The values that informed much of the anti-austerity movement, however, are oftentimes radical and idealistic; influenced by notions of horizontalism, prefigurativism, anarchism, a critique of representation, and the search for a radically democratic society. It is in the context of the so-called 'age of austerity', therefore, that these two quite different tendencies have been able to connect in a somewhat contradictory way, witnessing the emergence of a set of ideas and practices that we refer to here as 'pragmatic prefigurativism' (see also Bailey et al. 2016). Drawing on over 65 interviews with anti-austerity activists based in the UK and Spain, this article sets out and explores the core ideas, practices and experiences that constitute pragmatic prefigurativism; and discusses some of the contradictory ways in which this has been able to cause social change during the so-called 'age of austerity'.
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